10 Most dangerous military roles

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Often the mere fact that you’re in the military is dangerous enough. This is especially true during times of war.

People serve in the military for a variety of reasons. Many will do so because of patriotism  and a sense of duty towards their country. Others see it as an adventure and a test of manhood.

Many serve because they don’t have a choice in the matter and are conscripted or drafted into service. And there are others that consider it a career.

Those that serve in a combat role often face greater dangers that those that do not. Yet there are some combat roles that are more dangerous than others.

The strange thing with some of these roles is that people actually volunteered for them.

Here are ten dangerous combat roles in history, in no particular order.

Galley Rower

Before the invention of the steam engine, ships had two means of propulsion.

They would either rely on the free, but unreliable, wind, or on human sheer brute force.

Although sails could harness the power of the wind, a calm day could leave you drifting at the mercy of the sea. Human power, in the form of galley rowers, could always be relied on.

Contrary to popular belief, ancient galley rowers tended not to be slaves, but were instead free men who were well respected for their profession.

The work of the galley rower was skilled and required high levels of training and coordination between each rower.

In battle the lives of all on board were reliant on the talents of the men rowing the galley. So it made sense that ancient navies would be reluctant to place their lives in the hands of unskilled and unreliable slaves.

This would, however, change dramatically between the ancient world and the middle ages.

By the 1600s the size of galleys and galley fleets was becoming much larger. This meant that a greater number of rowers were needed. The supplies of skilled oarsmen could not keep up with the demand.

The era of the galley slave was born as navies manned their fleets with whichever unfortunate that they could seize.

This practice became especially common in France when the king ordered judges to sentence men to the galleys for their crimes instead of issuing the death penalty.

Criminals were usually given a ten year sentence to the galleys. Many regarded this as a death sentence because few would survive the battles to come, or the harsh conditions.

Chained to the benches where they worked, most spent their entire short existence confined to the rowing deck.

They were unable to wash or even go to the toilet. It was often said that with the right wind direction you could smell a galley long before you would see it.

Unable to move, the rowers would often develop sores on their body, caused by the friction of the chains as they rowed. These wounds would often become infected in the unsanitary conditions, resulting in even more deaths.

Even if the men survived these terrible conditions, they still had to contend with the greatest danger - battle on the open seas.

If a ship was sunk, the rowers, chained to their benches, would be dragged down to a watery grave.

Capture by the enemy may have seemed a good option, but it was not. They would either be put to death, or used as galley slaves by the enemy.

Tunnel Rats

From the 1940s during the Indochina War against the French colonial forces, the Viet Minh created an extensive network of underground tunnels and complexes.

These were later expanded by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. By the 1960s there were underground hospitals, training grounds, storage facilities, headquarters and even stages for political theatre. The Viet Cong, who were skilled at guerrilla warfare, might stay underground for several months at a time.

The Viet Cong would often emerge from the tunnels, launch a quick raid or ambush, then escape back into the tunnels before the might of the American war machine could be turned against them.

The tunnel complexes could stretch for hundred of kilometres, often linking villages and even provinces. This meant that the Viet Cong could move forces and equipment unseen and protected.

To combat this problem the US military tried flooding the tunnels, or using gas to kill or flush out those within. Yet the sheer size of the tunnels and the use of simple, but highly effective water traps, meant that these attempts met with little success.

The tunnels were spread over several levels, with each level sealed by a watertight trap door. There were U-bends in tunnels on the same level and these would often be filled with water, preventing gas from spreading.

The Americans even tried sending dogs down into the tunnels, but they were quickly killed by the numerous traps lining the tight passageways.

It was decided that the only way to clear the tunnels was by sending in specialised soldiers to clear the tunnels of enemy, gather intelligence, and blow the tunnels up one by one.

Infantrymen, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and America, volunteered for the job and became known as ‘tunnel rats’. Their motto was the Latin phrase “Non Gratus Rodentum” - ”not worth a rat”.

The men had to be small and thin to stand any chance of making their way through the tight passageways.

Whenever troops discovered a tunnel entrance the area would first be checked for booby traps before a tunnel rat was sent in.

Armed with only a pistol, a bayonet and a flashlight, the tunnel rat would be lowered into the tunnel.

Many of them chose not to arm themselves with the standard issue .45 caliber pistol. Due to the confined space, they disliked the intense muzzle blast of the .45, which would often leave them temporarily deaf. The preferred pistols were 9x19 mm calibre, often with an improvised suppressor.

The tunnels were filled with dangers. Defending soldiers often manned holes on the sides of the tunnels through which spears could be thrust, impaling a crawling intruder.

There were dangerous creatures such as snakes, rats, spiders, scorpions and ants. Venomous snakes were placed inside a hollow bamboo tube that was attached to a tripwire. When tripped, the snake would fall onto the intruder.

Often the tunnel rats would operate in the dark so that they light of their torch did not give them away.

It was a job filled with stress as every centimetre of a tunnel could prove deadly. They would strain their senses, listening for the slightest sound such as a man breathing or try to smell the sweat of a person close by.

Clearing a section of tunnel and setting up the explosives could take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

Many of the tunnel rats in Vietnam did not survive the war.

Later, similar teams were used by the Soviet Army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the Israel Defense Forces.

Afghanistan has an extensive series of historic tunnels used for transporting water, the kariz, and during the 1979–1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, such tunnels were used by Mujahideen fighters. The Soviet 40th Army had their own tunnel rats, who were tasked with flushing people out of the tunnels, then going through the tunnels to disarm booby traps and kill those who remained.

A similar Israeli team called SAMOOR (“Weasel”) is part of the Yahalom elite combat engineering unit.

World War I pilot

World War I was the first war where aircraft were used in combat. While many pilots would go on to survive the war, casualties among pilots were still very high.

There were numerous factors that contributed to the high attrition rate of pilots.

First of all, early aircraft were beset with technical problems. Engines would stall in a steep climb or tight turn. In a steep dive the wings could tear off. Machine guns would often jam during combat. There was no radio communication between planes or to the ground.

Pilots would often have as little as ten hours flying time before being sent into combat. Some of them found it difficult enough to manage straight and level flight, let alone the twists and turns of a dogfight.

Many pilots, on both sides, were killed in aircraft accidents. In fact the life expectancy of a pilot during World War I was a mere 11 days.

One of the greatest dangers they faced was that of their aircraft catching fire. Most of the planes were made from wood and canvas and would often catch fire when hit.

While parachutes were available (they were issued to balloon observers) they were not issued to pilots.

If a pilot’s aircraft caught on fire they had three options. First of all they could ‘bail out’ of the burning aircraft and fall to their death. Secondly, they could remain with the aircraft and burn to death.

Or thirdly, as most pilots would carry a pistol with them, he would shoot himself in the head. Most opted for the last choice.

CLAUSTROPHOBIA: A tunnel rat prepares to enter a Viet Cong tunnel complex.

Ball turret gunner

From early 1943 until the end of World War II, the skies over Germany were not the safest place to be.

The US Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force Bomber Command began the strategic bombing campaign of German cities. This was also known as area bombardment.

According to a British Air Staff paper, “The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce destruction and fear of death.”

The US Army Air Force carried out daylight raids over Germany, while the RAF bombed at night.

Besides facing heavy anti-aircraft fire, bomber crews also faced the danger of German Luftwaffe fighters. And many of these bombing missions were carried out without fighter escort.

It was only in 1944 that the introduction of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the North American P-51 Mustang allowed Allied fighters to escort bombers all the way to their target.

Even bomber crews that managed to bail out after being shot down over Germany were not safe. There was the very real danger that, upon parachuting to the ground, they could be seized by angry German civilians and lynched from the nearest lamppost.

German civilians referred to the bombers crews as terrorflieger (terror flyers).

The bombers used by the US Army Air Force were the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

The B-17 was armed with 13 12.7 mm M2 Browning machine guns, while the B-24 had 10. One thing they both had in common was a Sperry ball turret in the belly of the aircraft.

The Sperry ball turret was very small in order to reduce drag, and was typically operated by the smallest man of the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and occupied his cramped station.

He would put on a safety strap and close and lock the turret door. There was no room inside for a parachute, which was left in the cabin above the turret.

A common tactic of the German fighters was to come up under the bomber and take out the belly gunner first.

It was not uncommon for the turret door to jam shut in a damaged bomber, leaving the belly gunner unable to bail out.

Tail gunner

During the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, being a tail gunner in a Vickers Wellington bomber or a Avro Lancaster bomber was not the most desirable job.

The RAF carried out their bombing missions at night. The tail gunner would spend many hours a night flying backwards in cramped, freezing and solitary conditions.

The life expectancy of a rear gunner, also known as ‘tail-end Charlie’, was desperately short; estimates vary but suggest that they could expect to be shot down, or killed, within two weeks, or up to five operations. According to Yorkshire Air Museum,  20,000 rear gunners lost their lives during World War II.

The primary role of the tail gunner was to defend his aircraft from enemy fighter attack from the rear, and to warn the pilot when to take evasive manoeuvres.

This meant flying in this confined, see-through turret, enveloped by the pitch-black sky and constantly revolving the turret to scan the eerie darkness for a shadow that could be an attacking night fighter.

German night fighter favoured the tactic of attack a British bomber from behind, and the tail gunner was usually their first target.

Flamethrower operator

The idea of setting your enemy on fire is nothing new and man has done his best to turn flame into a weapon for thousands of years.

From as early as the first century ‘Greek Fire’ was deployed  in a flamethrower-type weapon on board naval ships in order to give the Byzantines a combat advantage.

In 900 AD the Chinese developed a piston-type flamethrower that used a substance similar to gasoline.

The modern flamethrower as we known it was first put to deadly use during the First and Second World Wars.

Able to produce a long stream of accurate flame, the weapon seemed an ideal solution to break the stalemate of trench warfare.

It could incinerate enemy soldiers sheltering in bunkers or trenches, or cause them to flee for their lives. The problem wa that they could be gunned down before they were close enough to use the flamethrower.

During World War II the flamethrower was used to assault heavily defended enemy positions such as bunkers and pillboxes were the enemy sheltering inside could be burnt to death or flushed out by the intense flames.

Yet the flamethrower operators didn’t have things all their own way. There were a variety of deadly risks of using flamethrowers in combat.

The equipment was heavy and made moving around a combat zone slower and therefore more dangerous.

The flamethrower also had a very short burn time and would use up fuel very quickly. If you missed your target you would now be faced by an enemy who would probably not be amused that you just tried to set him on fire.

The weapon was also very visible, making its operator a prime target for enemy fire, especially from snipers. Even if the bullet missed you, it could puncture the flamethrower tank, causing you and nearby soldiers to be engulfed in flames.

Another major problem was that the range of the flamethrower was far less than that of a rifle. In order to be used effectively, the operator would have to get close to their target. This gave the enemy time to pick them off.

It could also have a heavy psychological effect on the operator. The sight of men on fire, screaming in pain. The constant stream of charred bodies and the smell of burnt flesh, and knowing that you were the cause, could have a strong psychological effect on the operator.

That, combined with the constant danger, would often be enough to tip even a balanced individual over the edge.

At Iwo Jima flamethrower operators suffered a massive 92% casualty rate with the average life expectancy to be just four minutes.

SAFE THIS TIME: A U-boat crew poses for the camera after returning from a patrol. Yet 75% of U-boat crew would not survive the war.

U-boat crewman

During World War I and World War II the Germans made excellent use of their U-boats (submarines).

In fact during World War II they came close to turning the entire tide of the war by denying Britain vital supplies during the Battle of the Atlantic.

To counter the threat of the U-boats, merchant ships began travelling in armed convoys.

An Escort Group consisted of several small warships organized and trained to operate together providing protection for trade convoys.

Escort groups were a World War II tactical innovation in anti-submarine warfare by the Royal Navy to combat the threat of the Kriegsmarine’s “wolfpack” tactics.

Early escort groups often contained destroyers, sloops, naval trawlers and, later, corvettes of differing specifications lacking the ability to manoeuvre together as a flotilla of similar warships, but rigorously trained in anti-submarine tactics to use teamwork emphasizing the unique sensors, weapons, speed and turning radius of each ship.

The development of these ‘escort groups’ proved an effective means of defending shipping convoys through the Battle of the Atlantic.

The advancement of ASDIC, known as SONAR by the Americans, meant that escorts could detect submarines under water.

The men that commanded and crewed U-boats were volunteers and the selection process was rigorous. They were a breed apart and wore their uniform with pride.

Yet the conditions they had to work and live under were harsh. They would often be at sea for months at a time, living and working in cramped conditions.

Fresh rations were consumed very quickly and for the remainder of the trip they would eat canned food. They could not shower and often were unable to wash clothes due to the limited amount of fresh water on board.

While they travelled on the surface as much as possible, when they were forced to dive the air would become stale very quickly.

The day was divided up into three eight-hour shifts. One shift was for sleeping, one for normal duties, and one for miscellaneous tasks. It was a routine that could quickly become monotonous.

Yet these conditions were nothing compared to coming under attack.

If they were detected by an escort ship they could expect to come under depth charge attack.

A depth charge attack could go on for hours until either the U-boat managed to escape, or they were sunk or forced to the surface.

If a depth charge exploded close enough to the U-boat it could damage the hull. The water pressure would then cause the hull to implode. Death would be quick as those inside were crushed.

The ballast tanks could also be damaged, forcing the U-boat to surface, where they would be at the mercy of the guns of the escort ships.

If the dive controls were damaged it could also cause the U-boat to sink to the bottom. If the water was deep enough the U-boat’s hull would be crushed. If, however, the water was not deep enough to crush the hull, the U-boat could lie on the seabed, unable to surface. Eventually they would run out of breathable air and the crew would die a slow death.

Statistics show that U-boat crew suffered a 75% casualty rate during World War II. In other words, three out of four of them did not survive the war.

SOE/OSS Operative

Early during World War II the British had been forced out of Europe. It was vital that they establish some sort of a presence, especially in France.

To this end the British established the Special Operations Executive (SOE). These men and women would be given training and then sent into occupied Europe, and sometimes even Germany.

Their tasks could include anything from spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence, to recruiting and training local resistance groups. They would also carry out acts of sabotage.

The work was both demanding and dangerous. The slightest slip-up could result in capture and execution.

If, for example, you were operating in France, it would not be enough to be merely able to speak French. You would have to be fluent and it would have to sound as if French was your first language.

Most of your identity documents, travel permits, and so on would be forgeries. If they were not up to date and spot on, you could easily be caught out.

Your cover story as to who you were and what you were doing there had to be perfect and stand up to any scrutiny. You would also have to know if there were any curfews enforced in the area and any local regulations.

You needed to know the lay of the land and who the local contacts were.

Unfortunately most operatives dropped into occupied Europe were quickly captured by the ruthless but highly efficient German Gestapo.

Operatives captured were often tortured in the most horrific ways, interrogated, and usually executed. Because they were not wearing a uniform they were not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war, but as spies.

When the Americans entered the war they formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and they worked closely with the SOE.

The SOE would later go on to become Britain’s MI6 and the OSS would become the CIA.

BANZAI: A Japanese Kamikaze dives towards a US Navy ship, aiming to crash his aircraft into it.

Kamikaze pilot

This was one of those jobs were your survival rate was rated at around about zero percent. Not exactly a great recruitment slogan. Yet most Kamikaze pilots were volunteers.

Towards the end of World War II, things were not going well for the Japanese. The Americans were closing in and were about to launch an invasion of Okinawa, one of the homeland islands.

In desperation, the Japanese Imperial Army came up with a solution - Kamikaze (Divne Wind) attacks.

What this meant was that a pilot would climb into his plane, fly out over the American fleet, put his plane into a steep dive, and deliberately crash it into a ship.

The planes were often loaded with explosives to make them more effective.

While these attacks were not always that successful (pilots would often miss the ships due to a lack of flight training) they did shock the Americans. In fact the Americans gave them the nickname of “Baka Bombs”. Baka is the Japanese term for idiot.

Penal Battalion

For as long as there have been wars, criminals and undesirable elements have been viewed as useful but disposable cannon fodder.

They were viewed as ideal for dangerous or suicidal missions or tasks that were beneath regular soldiers.

Arranged into penal battalions, they faced a short life of misery and suffering, followed by an almost certain death on the front lines.

The Romans used penal legions and Napoleon used penal battalions. But it was during the Second World War that penal battalions were used extensively by both the German and Soviet armies.

Prior to the war the Germans had used soldiers that were considered disruptive to general morale but were otherwise worthy of service in specialised penal units.

However with the war turning against them all sorts of prisoners, convicted soldiers and even hardened criminals were conscripted into the ranks in a desperate bid to stave off defeat.

Used to carry out the most dangerous and back breaking tasks, the doomed men were kept in line by officers and military police units along with the promise that should they serve with bravery they might be allowed to return to regular army units.

In reality they had little choice in the matter, for refusal to carry out the often suicidal missions would result in summary execution for the original sentence. For those men on death row this would mean a bullet to the back of the head or an appointment with the hangman’s noose.

Once the condemned men arrived at their designated units they would be given the most dangerous tasks which could involve clearing minefields, attacking heavily defended positions to soften up the enemy for the real soldiers waiting behind them, or used as cannon fodder to defend a specific location where they would sacrifice their lives, allowing regular army units they time needed to retreat.

Among the penal battalions these missions were often known as “Reise in den Himmel” (Journey to Heaven) missions.

One of the most infamous penal units was the 36th Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS. The units was originally made up of convicted poachers and their skill was used to hunt and kill partisans on the Eastern Front.

Yet the unit grew and its ranks were swelled by some of Germany’s worst criminals and most insane men. The unit soon gained a reputation for extreme brutality towards civilians.

The unit fell under the command of SS-Oberführer Oskar Direlwanger, a man with whom few could compete in cruelty. He was a convicted child molester and described as a psychopathic killer and an expert in extermination and a devotee of sadism and necrophilia.

The Soviets used about 430,000 men in penal battalions.

They were considered expendable and in an effort to install discipline and stop them from retreating in battle, Stalin issued the infamous Order 227 in July 1942. It was also known as the “Not one step back” order. No unit was allowed to retreat and anyone that did could face immediate execution or transfer to a penal battalion.

The NKVD Secret Police that commanded the battalions considered them cannon fodder. The units would be sent to where the fighting was the thickest. They were kept under armed guard. When they went into action they were followed by troops known as ‘Barrier guards’. They would set up machine guns and mow down anyone trying to retreat.

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